1. Chapter I

Early Days in the Colony

In the month of September, 1892, Lord Percy Douglas (now Lord Douglas of Hawick) and I, found ourselves steaming into King George's Sound—that magnificent harbour on the south-west coast of Western Australia—building castles in the air, discussing our prospects, and making rapid and vast imaginary fortunes in the gold-mines of that newly-discovered land of Ophir. Coolgardie, a district then unnamed, had been discovered, and Arthur Bayley, a persevering and lucky prospector, had returned to civilised parts from the “bush,” his packhorses loaded with golden specimens from the famous mine which bears his name. I suppose the fortunate find of Bayley and his mate, Ford, has turned the course of events in the lives of many tens of thousands of people, and yet, as he jogged along the track from Gnarlbine Rock to Southern Cross, I daresay his thoughts reverted to his own life, and the good time before him, rather than to moralising on the probable effect of his discovery on others.

We spent as little time as possible at Albany, or, I should say, made our stay as short as was permitted, for in those days the convenience of the passenger was thought little of, in comparison with the encouragement of local industries, so that mails and travellers alike were forced to remain at least one night in Albany by the arrangement of the train service, greatly to the benefit of the hotel-keepers.

We were somewhat surprised to see the landlord's daughters waiting at table. They were such tremendously smart and icy young ladies that at first we were likely to mistake them for guests; and even when sure of their identity we were too nervous to ask for anything so vulgar as a pot of beer, or to expect them to change our plates.

Between Albany and Perth the country is not at all interesting being for the most part flat, scrubby, and sandy, though here and there are rich farming and agricultural districts. Arrived at Perth we found ourselves a source of great interest to the inhabitants, inasmuch as we announced our intention of making our way to the goldfields, while we had neither the means nor apparently the capability of getting there. Though treated with great hospitality, we found it almost impossible to get any information or assistance, all our inquiries being answered by some scoffing remark, such as, “Oh, you'll never get there!”

We attended a rather remarkable dinner—given in honour of the Boot, Shoe, Harness, and Leather trade, at the invitation of a fellow-countryman in the trade, and enjoyed ourselves immensely; speech-making and toast-drinking being carried out in the extensive style so customary in the West. Picture our surprise on receiving a bill for 10s. 6d. next morning! Our friend of the dinner, kindly put at our disposal a hansom cab which he owned, but this luxury we declined with thanks, fearing a repetition of his “bill-by-invitation.”

Owing to the extreme kindness of Mr. Robert Smith we were at last enabled to get under way for the scene of the “rush.” Disregarding the many offers of men willing to guide us along a self-evident track, we started with one riding and one packhorse each. These and the contents of the pack-bags represented all our worldly possessions, but in this we might count ourselves lucky, for many hundreds had to carry their belongings on their backs—“humping their bluey,” as the expression is.

Our road lay through Northam, and the several small farms and settlements which extend some distance eastward. Very few used this track, the more popular and direct route being through York, and thence along the telegraph line to Southern Cross; and indeed we did pass through York, which thriving little town we left at dusk, and, carrying out our directions, rode along the telegraph line. Unfortunately we had not been told that the line split up, one branch going to Northam and the other to Southern Cross; as often happens in such cases, we took the wrong branch and travelled well into the night before finding any habitation at which we could get food and water.

The owner of the house where we finally stopped did not look upon our visit with pleasure, as we had literally to break into the house before we could attract any attention. Finding we were not burglars, and having relieved himself by most vigorous and pictorial language (in the use of which the teamsters and small farmers are almost without rivals) the owner showed us his well, and did what he could to make us comfortable. I shall never forget the great hospitality here along this road, though no doubt as time went on the settlers could not afford to house hungry travellers free of cost, and probably made a fair amount of money by selling provisions and horse-feed to the hundreds of gold-fever patients who were continually passing.

Southern Cross, which came into existence about the year '90, was a pretty busy place, being the last outpost of civilisation at the time of our first acquaintance with it. The now familiar corrugated-iron-built town, with its streets inches deep in dust under a blazing sun, its incessant swarms of flies, the clashing of the “stamps” on the mines, and the general “never-never” appearance of the place, impressed us with feelings the reverse of pleasant. The building that struck me most was the bank—a small iron shanty with a hessian partition dividing it into office and living room, the latter a hopeless chaos of cards, candle ends, whiskey bottles, blankets, safe keys, gold specimens, and cooking utensils. The bank manager had evidently been entertaining a little party of friends the previous night, and though its hours had passed, and a new day had dawned, the party still continued. Since that time it has been my lot to witness more than one such evening of festivity!

On leaving Southern Cross we travelled with another company of adventurers, one of whom, Mr. Davies, an old Queensland squatter, was our partner in several subsequent undertakings.

The monotony of the flat timber-clad country was occasionally relieved by the occurrence of large isolated hills of bare granite. But for these the road, except for camels, could never have been kept open; for they represented our sources of water supply. On the surface of the rocks numerous holes and indentations are found, which after rain, hold water, and besides these, around the foot of the outcrops, “soaks,” or shallow wells, are to be found.

What scenes of bitter quarrels these watering-places have witnessed! The selfish striving, each to help himself, the awful sufferings of man and beast, horses and camels mad with thirst, and men cursing the country and themselves, for wasting their lives and strength in it; but they have witnessed many an act of kindness and self-denial too.

Where the now prosperous and busy town of Coolgardie stands, with its stone and brick buildings, banks, hotels, and streets of shops, offices, and dwelling-houses, with a population of some 15,000, at the time of which I write there stood an open forest of eucalyptus dotted here and there with the white tents and camps of diggers. A part of the timber had already been cleared to admit of “dry-blowing” operations—a process adopted for the separation of gold from alluvial soil in the waterless parts of Australia.

Desperate hard work this, with the thermometer at 100° in the shade, with the “dishes” so hot that they had often to be put aside to cool, with clouds of choking dust, a burning throat, and water at a shilling to half a crown a gallon! Right enough for the lucky ones “on gold,” and for them not a life of ease! The poor devil with neither money nor luck, who looked into each dishful of dirt for the wherewithal to live, and found it not, was indeed scarcely to be envied.

Water at this time was carted by horse-teams in waggons with large tanks on board, or by camel caravans, from a distance of thirty-six miles, drawn from a well near a large granite rock. The supply was daily failing, and washing was out of the question; enough to drink was all one thought of; two lines of eager men on either side of the track could daily be seen waiting for these water-carts. What a wild rush ensued when they were sighted! In a moment they were surrounded and taken by storm, men swarming on to them like an army of ants. As a rule, eager as we were for water, a sort of order prevailed, and every man got his gallon water-bag filled until the supply was exhausted. And generally the owner of the water received due payment.

About Christmas-time the water-famine was at its height. Notices were posted by order of the Warden, proclaiming that the road to or from Coolgardie would soon be closed, as all wells were failing, and advising men to go down in small parties, and not to rush the waters in a great crowd. This advice was not taken, and daily scores of men left the “field,” and many were hard put to it to reach Southern Cross. It was a cruel sight in those thirsty days to see the poor horses wandering about, mere walking skeletons, deserted by their owners, for strangers were both unable to give them water, and afraid to put them out of their misery lest damages should be claimed against them. How long our own supplies would last was eagerly discussed, as we gathered round the butcher's shop, the great meeting-place, to which, in the evenings, most of the camp would come to talk over the affairs of the day.

Postmaster, as well as butcher and storekeeper, was Mr. Benstead, a kind-hearted, hard-working man, and a good friend to us in our early struggles. What a wonderful post-office it was too! A proper match for the so-called coach that brought the mails. A very dilapidated buckboard-buggy drawn by equally dilapidated horses, used to do the journey from the Southern Cross to the new fields very nearly as quickly as a loaded waggon with eight or ten horses! The mail-coach used to carry not only letters, papers, and gold on the return journey, but passengers, who served the useful purposes of dragging the carriage through the sand and dust when the horses collapsed, of hunting up the team in the mornings, and of lightening the load by walking. For this exceedingly comfortable journey they had the pleasure of paying at least £5. It was no uncommon sight at some tank or rock on the road, to see the mail-coach standing alone in its glory, deserted by driver and passengers alike. Of these some would be horse-hunting, and the rest tramping ahead in hope of being caught up by the coach. There would often be on board many hundred pounds' worth of gold, sent down by the diggers to be banked, or forwarded to their families; yet no instance of robbing the mail occurred. The sort of gentry from whom bushrangers and thieves are made, had not yet found their way to the rush.

Many banks were failing at that time, and men anxiously awaited the arrival of news. The teamsters, with their heavy drays, would be eagerly questioned as to where they had passed Her Majesty's mail, and as to the probability of its arrival within the next week or so! The distribution of letters did not follow this happy event with great rapidity. Volunteers had to be called in to sort the delivery, the papers were thrown into a heap in the road, and all anxious for news were politely requested to help themselves. Several illustrated periodicals were regularly sent me from home, as I learnt afterwards, but I never had the luck to drop across my own paper!

On mail day, the date of which was most uncertain as the coach journeys soon overlapped, there was always a lengthy, well-attended “roll-up” at the Store. Here we first made acquaintance with Messrs. Browne and Lyon, then negotiating for the purchase of Bayley's fabulous mine of gold. No account of the richness of this claim at that time could be too extravagant to be true; for surely such a solid mass of gold was never seen before, as met the eye in the surface workings.

Messrs. Browne and Lyon had at their camp a small black-boy whom they tried in vain to tame. He stood a good deal of misplaced kindness, and even wore clothes without complaint; but he could not bear having his hair cut, and so ran away to the bush. He belonged to the wandering tribe that daily visited the camp—a tribe of wretched famine-stricken “blacks,” whose natural hideousness and filthy appearance were intensified by the dirty rags with which they made shift to cover their bodies. I should never have conceived it possible that such living skeletons could exist. Without begging from the diggers I fail to see how they could have lived, for not a living thing was to be found in the bush, save an occasional iguana and “bardies,”note and, as I have said, all known waters within available distance of Coolgardie were dry, or nearly so.

Benstead had managed to bring up a few sheep from the coast, which the “gins,” or women, used to tend. The native camp was near the slaughter-yard, and it used to be an interesting and charming sight to see these wild children of the wilderness, fighting with their mongrel dogs for the possession of the offal thrown away by the butcher. If successful in gaining this prize they were not long in disposing of it, cooking evidently being considered a waste of time. A famished “black-fellow” after a heavy meal used to remind me of pictures of the boa-constrictor who has swallowed an ox, and is resting in satisfied peace to gorge.

The appeal of “Gib it damper” or “Gib it gabbi” (water), was seldom made in vain, and hardly a day passed but what one was visited by these silent, starving shadows. In appreciation no doubt of the kindness shown them, some of the tribe volunteered to find “gabbi” for the white-fellow in the roots of a certain gum-tree. Their offer was accepted, and soon a band of unhappy-looking miners was seen returning. In their hands they carried short pieces of the root, which they sucked vigorously; some got a little moisture, and some did not, but however unequal their success in this respect they were all alike in another, for every man vomited freely. This means of obtaining a water supply never became popular. No doubt a little moisture can be coaxed from the roots of certain gums, but it would seem that it needs the stomach of a black-fellow to derive any benefit from it.

Though I cannot say that I studied the manners and customs of the aboriginals at that time, the description, none the worse for being old, given to savages of another land would fit them admirably—“Manners none, customs beastly.”